August 1, 2017

Three years in the making: The case of “A South Italian Bell-Krater by Python in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” results in seizure.

On June 1, 2014 this blog published a distilled version of an academic investigation which heavily documented details from an article in the Spring 2014 Journal of Art Crime which highlighted the illicit origin of a possibly trafficked Bell-krater.  The author of the peer-reviewed journal article, Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, is an expert on illicit antiquities trafficking and objects identification who also teaches with ARCA's as part of our postgraduate art crime program.* 

At the time ARCA published Tsirogiannis' long-form article, the krater was on display in Gallery 161 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Attributed to the artist Python (active ca. 350 – 325 BCE) of Poseidonia (Paestan), the vase depicts Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, along with a flute-playing companion.

By comparing a series of five photos which are part of the confiscated and now infamous Medici archive, Tsirogiannis believed that the krater should be seized from the Met Museum, as the likelihood of it having been looted was quite high.

The photos reviewed by Tsirogiannis were part of the art market records of antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, convicted in 2005 of receiving stolen goods and conspiracy to traffic looted antiquities. Given the presence of one damning polaroid in particular, it seemed very probable that this vase had passed through Medici's known network of suppliers who dealt in looted objects.

Medici polaroid of Python's bell-krater
The Polaroid SX-70 camera model was a boon in DIY photography, but the point and shoot camera did not arrive on the European market until 1972. As the new technology produced clear images with no separate negatives, its ready-in-a-instant photos could not be manipulated or altered.  They also didn't require a visit to a risky photo lab in order to develop rolls of film, making them perfect for amateur pornographers.

But the Polaroid SX-70 also became the camera of choice among many Italian looters of the period. The camera's instant photo capabilities meant traffickers too didn't have to worry about the photomat attendant making extra copies or notifying the authorities if their photos were deemed suspicious. By bypassing the film developing stage, the Polaroid photos could be shared directly between looter, middleman or antiquities dealer directly reducing the chance of detection.  This advent of this type of photography offered traffickers and their dealer counterparts with authentic and voyeuristic antiquities porn, which often memorialized the harsh reality of the looters handiwork.

Many such images, as with a Polaroid picture of Python's bell-krater, were found in Medici's confiscated business records.  In other repatriation cases, these photos have been used in evidentiary proceedings to establish object identifications and as documentation of the passages the object took from looter to dealer to the licit market.  So while the photos once were a book for the criminal they now serve law enforcement as evidence resulting in antiquities forfeiture from some of the world's most prestigious museums.

Some of the Polaroids in Medici's archive show antiquities in the trunks of cars, spread out on kitchen tables or on floors. In the photo of this particular Bell-Krater, the object appears to have been placed on a rose-coloured upholstered chair or sofa.   This same background surface can be seen in another Medici archive photo analyzed by Maurizio Pellegrini and Daniela Rizzo of Italy’s Soprintendenza Beni Archeologici Etruria Meridionale at the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia. That identification involved antiquities which were later proven to be illicit and were repatriated to Italy (e.g. plates attributed to the Bryn Mawr Painter, once offered to the Getty Museum).

The 1972 date of the Polaroid SX-70 arrival in Europe is important as it proves that this object was likely dug up after the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.  This international treaty was the first international instrument dedicated to the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property and made it illegal to export cultural property from signatory nations like Italy.  Despite this, the bell-krater arrived to the United States and was auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on June 23, 1989, selling for $90,000.  This is the same year that the object entered the Met’s antiquities collection, acquired by the museum via the Bothmer Purchase Fund, named for the longtime Met curator who died in 2009.**



But let's take a close look at this object and its photographic records, comparing a second Medici dossier photograph of the bell-krater with its counterpart from the Department of Greek and Roman Art collection online at the Metropolitan Museum.

NOTE:  The "See additional object information" link on this Bell-Krater, which would nominally list any and all collecting information the museum chose to document publically regarding this acquisition, was permanently removed from the Metropolitan Museum website.

Photo Left: from Medici's Archive depicting bell-krater highlighting salt encrustations
Photo Right: Archival Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
The Medici archive photo clearly shows the Python Bell-krater with salt encrustations at its base, while the vase's current restored condition in the museum's photo does not.   With this photo comparison we can hypothesize that Giacomo Medici was acutely aware of the vase's existence after 1972 and possibly in direct contact with participants connected with the vase's looting, before the object was restored.

Uncomfortable questions for uncomfortable museums

According to a New York Times article yesterday, July 31, 2017, this bell-krater has been seized by New York State authorities at the behest of an investigation initiated by New York State Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, to which Tsirogiannis provided detailed information.  A copy of the warrant can be found here.  Treading lightly in its opening photo caption, the NYT's article by Tom Mashberg delicately states that "A vessel known as a krater that the Metropolitan Museum of Art turned in to the district attorney’s office in Manhattan after a warrant was issued last week." This makes the seizure seem almost cooperative in nature, which to me seems a bit generous.

Tsirogiannis emailed the Metropolitan Museum on February 7, 2014, asking that his message questioning the object's origins be forwarded to the curatorial staff for the Department of Greek and Roman Art whose email is not available on the museum's website.  In his email he requested a full collecting history of the krater.  His email went unanswered.

The fact that this case was subsequently published in ARCA's Journal of Art Crime which outlined the museum's failure to respond, then in a blog post published on this blog, and again in a May 2017 journalistic piece in the National Geographic should have elicited some sort of public acknowledgement or rebuttal on the museum's part.   Instead the Met continued with its non-responsive stance with Tsirogiannis and failed to acknowledge the brewing conundrum in a proactive way.

In today's New York Times article Mashberg states

Officials said the museum had noticed Dr. Tsirogiannis’s published research in 2014 and, indeed, had been troubled by the reappearance of Mr. Medici’s name in connection with an artifact. They said they reached out informally to the Italian authorities then, but received no response.

It is not clear what "troubled" and "reached out informally means" or why, given the objects connection with a convicted trafficker and its likely looted state, why the museum didn't attempt to repatriate the object voluntarily.

Page 7 of the AAMD guidelines "Introduction to the Revisions to the 2008 Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art" reads:

"If a member museum, as a result of its continuing research, gains information that establishes another party’s right to ownership of a Work, the museum should bring this information to the attention of the party, and if the case warrants, initiate the return of the Work to that party, as has been done in the past. In the event that a third party brings to the attention of a member museum information supporting the party’s claim to a Work, the museum should respond promptly and responsibly and take whatever steps are necessary to address this claim, including, if warranted, returning the Work, as has been done in the past."

I guess the museum's voluntary informal notification, its only proactive gesture towards an object of concern in three years, could be commended, but to me their actions towards righting a potential wrong were insufficient.  Yes, the museum brought "this information to the attention of the party" by contacting the Italian authorities as mentioned in the NYT article.  But despite this preliminary step, they failed to respond to an academic researcher's request for further clarification on the object's provenance, then removed the object's spartan collection details from their website completely.

Museums can and should do better.  

While the AAMD is committed to the exercise of due diligence and enhanced transparency in the acquisition process, and to demonstrating that accessioned objects in museum collections are out of their country of modern discovery prior to or legally exported therefrom after November 17, 1970, the Metropolitan Museum only adhered to a fraction of the Association's recommended guidelines in its handling of this object.

Passively waiting for a law enforcement seizure, like a wait and watch approach to a potential cancer,  should not be an acceptable protocol with suspect antiquities which documentation has proved require fuller due diligence. Especially when the museum was well informed that there was a brewing issue surrounding the object in question.

By: Lynda Albertson
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*You may read Dr. Tsirogiannis’ article on this object in the Spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime by subscribing via the ARCA website or ordering the issue through Amazon.com.

** Bothmer played a crucial role in the acquisition of archaeological material, looted and smuggled after 1970, both on behalf of the MET and for his personal collection formed during the same period.

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